Covering a song can be a way for artists to branch out and show appreciation for other types of music. Sometimes the cover even becomes far more famous than the original. “Twist and Shout” was originally recorded by the Isley Brothers, but is popularly associated with The Beatles. Robert Hazard wrote and first performed “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” but Cyndi Lauper’s cover version became a massive hit and helped launch her career. Her version evolved into a feminist anthem and led to significantly more artists covering it.
Often, musicians will add their own unique spin to songs they cover, in a way making them their own. Of course, not everyone sees it this way. Singer-songwriter Jake Holmes wrote “Dazed and Confused” for an album he released in 1967. The British group The Yardbirds subsequently recorded a different arrangement of the song, and then Yardbirds guitarist Jimmy Page brought it to his new band, Led Zeppelin – who added new lyrics and added it to their regular repertoire without crediting Holmes. He sued, and the two parties eventually reached a settlement.
The early Rolling Stones anthem “[I Can’t Get No] Satisfaction” was reworked with significant changes by numerous other artists without incurring legal action. Otis Redding’s version was described by music critic Robert Christgau as an “anarchic reading” of the song (Redding claimed not to know the words, so improvised). The new wave band Devo played with the song’s basic rhythm for what has been called their “robo-rock” interpretation. Chan Marshall, who records as Cat Power, elided some of the lyrics and turned it into something dreamy, almost soporific. (Check out the most covered songs in music history.)
When 24/7 Tempo compiled a list of the 50 best cover songs of all time, neither “Dazed and Confused” nor “Satisfaction” made the cut. We determined which songs did by developing an index measuring audience rating and radio and streaming popularity. Data on average audience ratings of various versions of a song’s performance came from SecondHandSongs, a database tracking originals and cover songs. (These are the most covered artists.)
In addition, an inverted ranking of a song’s performances on the Billboard Hot 100 chart – wherein a week at position No. 100 is worth one point, a week at position No. 99 two points, and so on, up to a week at position No. 1 worth 100 points – was calculated using data from Billboard. Both measures were given equal weight. Christmas songs and covers of instrumental songs with added lyrics were not included. (Information on the original artist and songwriters came from SecondHandSongs and other sources.)
The songs on this list are masterpieces of music and proof that artists don’t have to start from scratch to make something unique and special.